The Weaker Foe – Part 2: Transforming the Army to Win as the Near-Peer Competitor



The U.S. Army today is a product of more than 70 years of American military dominance. Since the end of World War II, this Army has benefited from the complete dominance of American air and naval forces, enjoying freedom to deploy, assured logistics, and safety from attack from air or sea. During that same period, the Army has had technological and materiel superiority over every enemy it has fought or, in the case of the Soviet Union, deterred. This dominance has shaped the U.S. Army physically, mentally, and culturally into an Army that expects those conditions to continue and relies on them for victory. But, there are ominous trends in the economic growth, military development, improving professionalism, and growing experience of the armed forces of potential foes such as China, Russia, and Iran. If trends continue over the next several decades, the time may come when the U.S. armed forces are no longer dominant, but may see roles reversed, so that the United States becomes the near-peer competitor. In anticipating that possibility this article focuses on how the U.S. Army must transform in order to win if confronted with a war in which we are the weaker foe. Part 1 of this analysis focused on the necessary characteristics a force must have to win as the weaker foe. This article follows that with a historical example to reinforce those characteristics, and a future article will provide some suggestions how the Army can transform from the force it is today to the Army it needs to be in the future.

The protection and strategic mobility offered by the air and naval services—and the Army’s own technical, materiel, and numerical superiority—has resulted in an Army that is increasingly conservative, bureaucratic, and risk averse. During the Cold War this Army proved transformational as it learned from the defeat in Vietnam; adapted to an evolving, complex, and existential threat in the Soviet Union; and became the Army that won decisively on the ground in Desert Storm. That Army was innovative doctrinally, recognized that risks must be taken to defeat a numerically superior foe, and developed the physical and mental agility demonstrated in the VII Corps transitioning from 40 years of preparing to defend the hills, forests, and towns of Germany to deploying the entire Corps thousands of miles and flowing into a successful attack in the desert of Iraq. Since then, those qualities have gradually eroded. As covered in Part 1 of this article series, those qualities have been replaced by an Army that is risk-averse to the point of paralysis, centrally controlled and micromanaged (not for the first time, as the defeat in Vietnam demonstrates), and not only lacking in cunning and innovation, but no longer even engaged in developing those qualities. As countless engagements and operations post-9/11 have illustrated, the U.S. Army has become a ponderous, slow-moving (and slow thinking), rigid force, continually challenged by smaller, less well-equipped, agile, adaptive, and innovative foes. The clearest example of this disparity was in the IED campaigns of multiple foes in Iraq and Afghanistan, where large, slow moving U.S. convoys moving along predictable routes never gained the initiative against small, agile IED cells that were able to adapt techniques and technologies faster than U.S. forces.

Additionally, the trend toward jointness in the American armed forces has both pros and cons. The pros are obvious: more options to attack enemies, to defend ourselves, and to move strategically and operationally. Some of the cons are also obvious: the U.S. Army no longer has any real capability to defend its tactical formations on the battlefield from air and missile attack; has become more reliant on large-scale, jointly provided logistics; and is dependent on joint communications and mission command systems. Other cons are less obvious.[1] For example, the move to joint doctrine has resulted in Army doctrine becoming only that which is acceptable to all the services and more about joint integration processes than winning land-centric campaigns. The classic example of this fact is that AirLand Battle doctrine was developed by the Army to answer emergent operational challenges, whereas today’s Unified Land Operations doctrine was driven by Joint Unified Action concepts and doctrine.[2] Additionally, professional military education in the Army has moved toward satisfying joint requirements in ways that have significantly reduced the time and level of effort devoted to educating leaders in the conduct of land battles, major operations, and campaigns—particularly those that might require combat without support from the air and sea. Without this kind of thinking, the Army would lose the self-reliance we will absolutely have to have if, in some future operation, our Air Force is driven from the skies and our Navy be kept at distance from the land. This could also, in somewhat lesser a degree, apply to the Army’s sister services, as well.

All this adds up to significant challenges for the U.S. Army in the decades ahead if it does not make some major changes. In Part 1 of this series, we concluded that winning as the weaker foe required cunning, risk-taking, asymmetric operations, problem generation, and, above all, transformational leadership and a culture that enabled each of these attributes. To provide a sense of how this plays out on the battlefield, it would be useful to review an example in which an army in the situation of being a weaker foe defeated a numerically superior and better equipped enemy, highlighting the aspects detailed above.

Finland in the Winter War—An Example of the Weaker Foe

The Winter War

Though the Soviets eventually achieved their objectives, the Finnish Winter War is such an example of the weaker foe achieving military success against a stronger foe. As such, it provides lessons in the transformational leadership, cunning, risk-taking, asymmetrical operations, problem-generation, and culture necessary to win when numerically and technologically outmatched.

World War II began with the invasion and defeat of Poland first by Germany and then by the Soviet Union. Shortly after their victory in eastern Poland, the Soviet Union invaded Finland with the intent of securing strategic depth on their northeastern flank, particularly to protect the major city of Leningrad (today St Petersburg). The Red Army committed significantly more force than the Finnish Army could match, including ten-fold advantages in divisions and aircraft and a hundred-to-one advantage in tanks. When the time for the attack came, the Soviets attacked into the Karelian Peninsula and initially made good progress until they came up against the main Finnish defense along the Mannerheim line. There the attack came to a halt against stout defenses and even stouter Finnish troops. Frustrated by the failure to achieve victory as easily as they had in Poland, the Red Army tried multiple division-size envelopments to the north in hopes of bypassing the line, cutting off the Karelian Peninsula, and achieving their operational objectives.[3]

Transformational Leadership

Mannerheim in 1940 (Wikimedia)

We have suggested that to be victorious the weaker foe requires gifted, transformational leadership. Transformational leadership includes not just transforming an organization, but also transforming the people in that organization and the leader themselves. Mannerheim had been an officer in the Czar’s Russian Army in World War I and then fought against the Soviets during the Russian Revolution. As a result, he understood the Russian Army, to include its strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, Mannerheim had been active in Finnish politics during the interwar years and had a deep understanding of the relationships between war and politics. From 1931 until 1938, he was the leader of the Finnish Defense Council, where he had a significant, transformational impact.[4] He worked incessantly to increase the Finnish defense budget from almost nothing to more than 25% of the annual budget for the country by 1939. His decision to build and defend along the defensive line that ultimately took his name not only made good sense for a defensive campaign, it illustrated his political expertise in convincing the Finns to resource and build the defensive line during peacetime and while their economy, like most others in Europe, was recovering from the recession of the early 1930s.[5] 

Mannerheim also led the transformation of the Army itself. The new Finnish Army was organized around small, technically competent units instead of the large units for massed attacks that had resulted from World War I and the post-Russian revolution war between the White Russians and the Red Soviets. When the Winter War did come, self-reliant small units operating independently were a major factor in the defeat of Soviet attacking divisions. Mannerheim also put his mark on the strategy, operations, and tactics of the Finnish Army. Recognizing that in any war with the Soviet Union they would be hopelessly outnumbered—particularly in aircraft, artillery, and tanks—the traditional Finnish offensive approach to war was out of the question. Despite this challenge, Mannerheim maintained their offensive spirit, so that even in the defense they would seek every opportunity to take the fight to the enemy with their independent-minded small units.[6] When war came, that is exactly the approach the Finns took; one for which the Red Army was unprepared and which was carried out with devastating effect, despite the disparity in relative strength.


In overcoming the significant advantages of the Red Army in size, power, and materiel, the Finns displayed superior cunning. Cunning is the ability to achieve your objectives through deceit or trickery. Drawing upon their understanding of fighting and living in the frozen north, they were able to deceive the Soviet commanders and soldiers, particularly at the tactical level, defeating and destroying formations many times their size. For example, in one of the coldest winters on record the Finnish lakes were so frozen they could hold vehicles and heavy equipment. The Finns not only attacked across lakes, they were able to use spoiling attacks to lure Red Army units into chasing retreating Finnish troops onto the lakes. Then, once Red Army units were well out on the lakes, the Finns would detonate mines in the ice, blowing open large chunks of the lakes, drowning the Russian soldiers and sending their equipment to the bottom.[7]

Another use of the sub-zero cold centered on a recognition that the Russians had limited ability to provide the hot, protein-rich meals necessary for survival in such an environment. For their own troops, the Finns had sled-mounted kitchens that could move with their ski troops and provide at least one hot meal a day in winter, no matter the conditions. Finnish units began to target the few Soviet kitchens with mortars, destroying the Red Army’s limited ability to provide any hot meals or beverages to the Russian troops. This weakened the Russian soldiers to the extent that many froze to death or surrendered because they could no longer survive the winter weather. The use of hunger as a weapon hastened the defeat of the Russian divisions.

Risk Taking

In defeating the Red Army, the Finnish Army took many risks. A risk is a conscious decision to accept a chance of failure for a greater gain. Chief among the risks for the Finns was the defense of the Mannerheim Line. Defending the line meant voluntarily fixing major portions of the strongest Finnish forces in positions where they could be destroyed by artillery, air, and ground attacks. But the alternative was a potential quick Soviet drive to secure the capital of Finland and major regions of the country. Given the limited resources of the Finnish government, the Mannerheim Line was not the sophisticated, contiguous front that was the French Maginot Line or the German Siegfried Line. Instead, it was a delaying measure, but the Finns took the risk of defending the line as an all-or-nothing effort.[8]

Another risk was attacking whole divisions of the Red Army with small, sometimes only company-strength forces. For example, the attack of the Russian 44th Division of 17,000 soldiers was blocked by two companies numbering only 300 Finnish soldiers.[9] Armed with few anti-tank weapons that could penetrate the Red Army’s armor, the Finns adopted anti-tank tactics that combined their grit with risk taking in an asymmetric approach that pitted small teams of men on foot against columns of tanks. Concealed in foxholes along tank routes, they would wait until several tanks passed then attack, throwing Molotov Cocktails or other devices to blind the crews and sneaking up close enough to emplace satchel charges to destroy or cripple the tanks.[10]

Problem Generating

Battle of Suomussalmi

As the weaker foe, one must generate problems for the stronger force that are unforeseen and which they are not prepared to overcome. The Finns used their unique understanding of the operational environment—the forests of the frozen north during one of the harshest winters on record—to force a change in the dynamic of the war. Rather than allowing the Soviets to defeat them, they forced the Soviets to survive the winter. As long Russian columns of divisions wound their way along the narrow forest trails, the Finnish forces used their understanding of the terrain to block routes at key choke points. This divided the Russian columns into smaller segments which the Finns called motti after the lengths of wood they would precut for later use. Once Red Army columns were cut into segments, these smaller elements were repeatedly attacked by Finnish forces that employed superior mobility to move parallel to the Russians and then attack, usually in company size raids, at a time and place of their choosing. Also known as scissor and curl tactics, the motti tactics physically wore down the Russian forces and destroyed their morale as they seemed incapable of an effective response. The map of the Battle of Suomussalmi illustrates the Finnish motti tactics.[11]

Asymmetrical Operations

The concept of asymmetrical operations is best illustrated by the story of David and Goliath. The smaller, lighter, weaker David had no hope of defeating Goliath in a symmetrical sword fight. Instead, David won by using an asymmetrical approach, killing Goliath with a slingshot to the head. Completely outnumbered and lacking quantities of the major material deemed necessary for symmetrical warfare in the mid-twentieth century (airplanes, artillery, and tanks), the Finns made the best of the advantages they did have. One of those advantages was the individual initiative, heroism, and commitment of the Finnish soldier to defend their homeland, a decisive asymmetric advantage compared to the Russian, Ukrainian, or other soldiers conscripted into the Russian Army who were attacking into a foreign country only because they were forced by Soviet Commissars. As an extreme example, in the Great Motti of Kitilä in December 1939 a Commissar shot the Russian commander of the 1st Battalion/34th Tank Brigade, 56th Rifle Corps, Captain Ryazanov, as "a coward and a panic-monger," because he had offered to break out to friendly lines instead of waiting for the Finns the eliminate the motti.[12] In contrast, Finnish initiative enabled them to develop the Molotov cocktail and then employ that weapon by individuals willing to fight tanks as individuals on foot. Moreover, their skill at moving through dense northern forests enabled them to approach Russian tanks to the point they could throw the Molotov cocktail against the vulnerable rear grills of the tanks.

In some areas of northern Finland, the Finns employed a Fabian strategy.[13] Finnish rearguard units applied delay and sabotage, rigging recently evacuated territory with what today we would call improvised explosive devices, and what in Vietnam were called booby traps. This forced advancing Soviet units to clear each town house by house, slowing them to a crawl and increasing their vulnerability to Finnish attack and also to the weather. In some cases, villages were simply set aflame in a bid to prevent the assailants from finding shelter from the elements for the night.

Another asymmetric advantage the Finns enjoyed was their superior mobility on skis. Using cross country skis, they could move quickly and noiselessly long distances through the forests, while the Red Army forces remained tied to the roads and trails. To the Russian soldiers, the Finnish troops must have been like ghosts, appearing without warning out of the forest mists to attack and then disappearing again before they could be engaged.[14]


The Finnish people are proud of their culture of sisu (grit) and highlight the role grit played in their defeat of the larger Soviet forces. The Finnish determination to win was motivated in part by their experience fighting the Red Army after the Russian revolution and seeing first-hand what happened to peoples who were subjugated under Soviet rule. But the Finnish individual self-reliance due to the harsh northern conditions also played a role in their sisu. The Finns were a poor people, but they were hard workers and had virtually no unemployment.They were also a people who grew-up, lived, and played outdoors in the snow and ice and thus made the transition to fighting in the harsh winters easier for them than their opponents, many of whom originated in softer climates.[15]

A second important aspect of culture was that they were uninhibited by rigid military doctrine; the Finns used the fact that half of their Army were mobilized civilians as a strength instead of a weakness. As the operations unfolded the Finns used their civilian skills and knowledge derived from working in the forests to develop new tactics and strategies, such as the motti tactics that grew out of the timber industry. This gave them a significant advantage over the Soviets, who were bound by rigid doctrine and disastrous orders from Stalin prohibiting retreat or defense, even when the attacks had been stopped.[16] Relatively junior Finnish commanders, captains and majors, were given very general instructions and then allowed to use their creativity and initiative to accomplish their mission.


In Part 1 of "The Weaker Foe," there emerged a set of factors that contributed to seemingly weaker forces defeating much stronger forces. Those factors included the transformational leadership, cunning, risk-taking, asymmetrical operations, problem-generation, and culture necessary to win when numerically and technologically outmatched. In this continuation of "The Weaker Foe," those characteristics were illustrated through the example of the defeat of the Red Army by the Finnish Army during the Winter War. In 105 days the Finns defeated a Soviet force ten times as large and with orders of magnitude more tanks, artillery and airplanes. The tactical and operational victory by the Finns demonstrates that a weaker force can defeat a stronger one, but only by fighting and operating differently and not simply fighting in the traditional, accepted ways. The final part of “The Weaker Foe,” will suggest initiatives the U.S. Army, and for that matter all militaries, ought to take to transform from the force that exists today to one that is capable of winning in the future as the weaker foe.

Jim Greer is a retired U.S. Army officer, the Vice President of the Center for Strategic Leadership and Design at ALIS, Inc., and a former Director of the School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of ALIS, Inc., the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A Finnish soldier during the Winter War in February, 1940. (Wikimedia)


[1] Since the end of the Cold War the Army has removed all Air-missile defense battalions from its division and corps formations and retains primarily Patriot and THAAD for area defense of the joint force, primarily oriented on bases, airfields and ports. There is an initiative to return short range air-missile defense to the division, but the final decision and resourcing is not complete.

[2] Post-9/11 Joint Concepts began to drive Army and other service concepts, which in turn drive doctrine development. The requirement to “align” Army doctrine with Joint doctrine re-influenced the development of Unified Land Operations as at

[3] Map downloaded April 16, 2017 at

[4] The Red Army that emerged during the Russian Revolution and the campaigns between the White and Red Russians reflected the organization that existed prior to the Revolution (artillery based), with the deep operations approaches developed by Tuckachevski and Triandifilov during the early 20s (when Mannerheim was fighting them). This emergence was codified in the 1936 Field Service Regulation.

[5] Hannula, J.O. (1939). Finland’s War of Independence, 1900-1944. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

[6] Tillotson, H. (1993). Finland at Peace and War: 1918-1993. Norwich, Great Britain: Michael Russell.

[7] Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia. Downloaded June 27, 2017 at

[8] Edwards, R. (2008). The Winter War. New York, NY: Pegasus.

[9] Edwards, R. (2008).

[10] Korhonan, S. (2006). The Battles of the Winter War. Downloaded March 9, 2017 at

[11] Map downloaded 16 April 2017 at

[12] Korhonan, S. (2006). The Battles of the Winter War. Downloaded March 9, 2017 at

[13] Rehman, I. (2016). Lessons from the Winter War: Frozen Grit and Finland’s Fabian Defense. War on the Rocks. Downloaded March 9, 2017 at

[14] Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia. Downloaded June 27, 2017 at

[15] Ibid.

[16] Tillotson, H. (1993)